The United States and the state of South Carolina experienced yet another tragedy on April 4, 2015 when Walter Scott, North Charleston resident, was shot and killed by officer Michael Slager. This incident has become a part of a growing number of killings involving police and unarmed civilians. In particular, unarmed African American males have been repeat victims of such crimes, calling attention to systematic racism and police force racism.
Walter Scott, an African American male, age 50 at his death, served for two years in the US Coast Guard. White Officer Slager fatally shot Scott as he attempted to flee the scene when pulled over regarding a faulty brake light. It has been reported by the passenger in Scott’s vehicle at the time of the shooting that Scott was headed to a cookout.
When CYN asked Jordan Kelley, President of the College’s Black Student Union, how his organization felt in response to the shooting, he said, “I believe the reaction to the killing of Walter Scott is a feeling of disgust because the world saw the video of the officer trying to frame him and make it seem like he took his [stun gun]. It’s disturbing to know that the police can cover their own tracks when they’re in the wrong.” Unlike previous cases such as the shooting in Ferguson last year, this incident was caught entirely on tape. There was little Officer Slager could say to defer responsibility for his actions. There was a clear misuse of his weapon. “The video is also an impactful aspect of the recent activism because now there [is] proof and not just hearsay. The video is also a contributing factor in the speed of the officer’s conviction because, as I said, there’s proof and not just the police system making the officer out to be the victim,” Kelley explained.
The true validity of American civil rights has been called into question time and time again since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Cases such as the killing of Trayvon Martin and the illegal strangulation of Eric Garner all serve as examples of what many are calling systematic racism against African American males. All victims in these cases were unarmed; their murders have drawn attention to the startling fact that African American men are frequently targeted and treated unfairly by police.
Scott’s killing has been met with a variety of responses. Slager was arrested and charged with first degree murder on April 7, showing a contrast between previous cases in which officers had months to gather evidence in order to justify their use of deadly force. Protests have followed, including a failed protest that intended to block travelers crossing the Ravenel Bridge on April 9. Protesters also gathered outside of city hall on April 8 to stand in opposition to police brutality. On April 12, a group protested during High Cotton’s Sunday brunch downtown. In New York City, over 400 protesters marched in Union Square in response to the Walter Scott shooting.
CYN reached out to John Hale, a professor of education who specializes in civil rights at the College of Charleston, who has been actively involved in the aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting. “I have been involved as a concerned community member and a community support since the death of Walter Scott was announced on April 4, 2015. I was in a public forum with state Senator Marlon Kimpson and others when Pastor Thomas Dixon stood and announced the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of North Charleston police when it was first announced. Since then, I have attended the rallies and demonstrations organized by #BlackLivesMatter and the Coalition when I can.”
Dr. Hale serves as just one of many examples of citizens taking matters into their own hands. The president of Black Lawyers for Justice has been quoted as saying his organization is, “disappointed over and over again by this justice system.” Many are frustrated as they see the justice system failing to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Hale said, “As a white, privileged male, I also want to demonstrate my indignation with a system that unfairly treats people of color. If one part of the community is adversely impacted, we are all adversely impacted. The measure of a community is how it treats its members who have been historically disenfranchised. What happens in North Charleston impacts downtown Charleston,” he explained. “The death of Walter Scott at the hands of police is a clear civil and human rights violation. This is not the individual act of one bad cop, but rather the result of an institutional and national problem that must be addressed. Former officer Slager pulled the trigger, but there is an entire system that shaped his decision to kill Walter Scott. There is a national pattern of police brutality, as confirmed by the Department of Justice report on Ferguson,” he explained.
Hale also provided information regarding changes already made in the police system that highlights how racism has played such a central role in the policing of North Charleston, “The police department in North Charleston adopted an aggressive policing policy in 2007 to reduce the crime rate. This meant targeting communities of color in which higher rates of crime existed. Over 85 percent of arrests, investigations and police action targeted the black community though only 45 percent of the community was black. Over 80 percent of the police force is white in a minority-majority community. Moreover, S.C. police officers have fired their weapons over 200 times since 2009, over 100 African Americans have been victims of this (and this is only what the state has voluntarily reported). Few have been indicted and none have been convicted. Finally, the black community has registered a multitude of complaints against the North Charleston Police Department, over 30 in 2009 alone. Yet, the voice of those impacted has gone unnoticed. Such statistics and there are many more available, indicate a systemic, institutional problem.”
The Walter Scott shooting happened at almost the same time of yet another shooting of an unarmed civilian in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Eric Harris, a 44 year old African American male, was shot fatally after getting caught attempting to sell an illegal gun to an undercover police officer. After fleeing the scene, Harris was shot accidentally by 73 year old Robert Bates, a reservist officer, who supposedly confused his handgun for his stun gun. Bates was charged with second degree manslaughter and has already self-surrendered, immediately posting his $25,000 bail. Many are still disgruntled, feeling that the punishment was unfairly biased in favor of Bates, further perpetuating institutional racism.
Hale offered advice to those who are interested in becoming a part of the movement fighting against such atrocities, “This is a moment of public outcry and our community is in mourning right now. We have the responsibility to truly listen to those in our community. Rather than say justice has been served with a murder charge, or say that this is the result of one bad cop, we have to listen to those who have been adversely affected by police brutality. Such victims are speaking out and it takes courage for them to do so. It is time that we listen. Moreover, as citizens in an American democracy, we have to take the time to study the issue at hand. Silence in the face of blatant injustice is akin to joining the side of the oppressor.”
As the aftermath of this terrible tragedy continues to unfold, Dr. Hale urged all Charleston residents to serve as examples to the nation: “This is an institutional problem that reaches deep into our own lives. In addition to addressing how we can revamp the institution of law enforcement we must also continue to address how our public schools are negatively impacting communities of color in Charleston County. We have a historic opportunity to truly engage in progressive reform and become a national exemplar. The time has come for us to act in the best interest of all community members.”
Kelley echoed such sentiments: “To be completely honest, I don’t believe there is any physical action you can do to combat systematic racism because it’s a system that has been around for hundreds of years. The best thing to do is just continue to let our voices be heard and not let anyone try and silence our cries for justice.” The call to listen has been sounded time and time again. When asked about what he thought as a potential solution to the problem, Kelley offered an answer not often represented in the media: “Personally, I believe the best solution is to have a more racially diverse jury on the trials so that the facts aren’t just one sided and there are different point of views brought in. I do not believe that the fault lies entirely in the U.S. Police force because if someone in certain situations the officer has a right to defend him or herself but not when the person is running away from you. That doesn’t make sense. As African Americans we have to continue to protest and start getting in office to try and change the laws and how things are handled.”
CYN has reached out to a variety of groups, such as #BlackLivesMatter Charleston; however, the BSU and Dr. Hale were the only two sources who agreed to comment. If any further information becomes available, updates will be posted here.